Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Above and below
When I arrived at All Saints’ church, Wing, last week, a service was just finishing and I stood back while the parishioners chatted by the porch and gradually dispersed and made their way home. There was plenty to hold my attention, especially at the church’s east end, where I admired the architecture of the apse (in the foreground of my picture above) in particular. This unusual, seven-sided structure probably dates to the ninth century, which puts it on a par with the church at Brixworth (slightly earlier) and the tower at Earls Barton (slightly later) as one of the stand-out examples Anglo-Saxon architecture. The walls are decorated with narrow bands of stone (called pilaster strips) and blind arches – typical Saxon motifs – but the two big windows in this part of the church are later insertions. The apse would originally have had very small, single-light windows like the one remaining low down on the left, where the structure of the apse joins the later medieval aisle.
I knew from reading that this apse stands above a small crypt, and as I walked around the walls I could see the entrance to this crypt, protected by some iron railings (again just visible at the base of the apse walls in my photograph). I could see that the entrance was firmly locked. However, when I finally went inside the church I was greeted by the vicar and several parishioners, lingering after the service, and had an enjoyable few minutes’ conversation about the beauties and history of the building. At the end of this I was offered the chance to go down into the crypt, which was generously unlocked for me.
Descending a few stone steps, I found myself in a small space, vaulted and held up by massive stone piers. The rubble masonry and unplastered stonework make the space feel very ancient and primitive to modern eyes, and yet to design and execute the vaulting in this unusual polygonal space required some sophistication. The overall impression nonetheless is of ancient simplicity. It’s very hard for a non-specialist to date a structure like this. Experts think it may even predate the apse above, being part of an earlier church, and being modified when the upper part of the apse was built. Niches in the outer walls may have housed the remains of the church’s founders; the possible partial rebuild may have been to house holy relics (like those in the Saxon crypt at Repton), but it’s impossible to be sure about this.
I am sure, though, that I’m very grateful to those in the church when I happened to arrive the other day, for giving me access to this bit of history. The life of the inveterate church-crawler and building blogger is so often made more rewarding by the kindness of strangers.